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Michael Gove: Charlie Whelan's new militant tendency

Once or twice in a generation, we have watershed elections - where the future direction of the country depends on the outcome.

It happened in 1945 - when people chose to build a new Jerusalem on the rock of social solidarity rather than individual freedom.

It happened in 1979 - when people decisively rejected the corporatist model that had dragged down the British economy and chose a new way based on free enterprise, low taxes and union reform.

And it happened in 1997 - when people were inspired by a message that politics could be different; that wealth and fairness could go hand-in-hand.

I don't believe anyone can reasonably dispute which category the forthcoming election falls into.

The choice people make in a few weeks time will shape the country we will be for years - decades - to come.

There are huge challenges ahead - which will require our society to be more open, flexible, adaptable, innovative and enterprising than ever.

We face a grave economic challenge - with Britain more indebted than ever in its history and our recovery threatened by a massive deficit which will force up interest and mortgage rates unless we take action.

We face a profound social challenge - with family breakdown, anti-social behaviour and violent crime all increasingly threatening our security and undermining opportunity.

And there is a momentous political challenge - with our parliamentary system broken - and the need for a massive shift in power away from Westminster and down to citizens if we're to restore faith in democracy.

And these challenges aren't faced by Britain in isolation. Across the globe other nations are adapting to massive change.

They are responding to the democratisation of knowledge through new technology, the increasing mobility of capital and labour, the entry of billions into the world economy, the liberating power of scientific breakthroughs, rapid improvements in education and the collapse of social rigidities which inhibited growth, opportunity and innovation.

The question for Britain is whether we will adapt - as other nations are adapting - and provide a better future for all our citizens

Or whether we will opt to drop back in this global race - content to paddle along in the global slow lane.

These are the central questions at this election. Which path will we take - will we modernise our public services so they serve all citizens better?

Will we modernise our economy so growth, opportunity and innovation are incentivised? Will we modernise education to keep pace with our global competitors?

Or will we retreat into a rigid posture of defiance, determined to close our eyes and ears to the realities, and the opportunities, the twenty-first century brings?

<h2>LABOUR CHANGE IN 1990s</h2>

With so much at stake, it is no surprise that there is so much scrutiny.

Scrutiny of each party's plans and policies; of their messages and strategies; of the campaigns they fight and the values they stand for.
That is right and proper in a democratic society.

It is also right that attention has been focussed on the changes that have taken place in the Conservative Party.

And I am glad that focus has reflected how our party is now the principal force for progressive change in politics

With black and minority ethnic candidates in safe or winnable seats from Chippenham to Maidstone, East Surrey to Stratford upon Avon.

I am glad that focus has reflected how our party is now the principal force for progressive change in education, with radical policies which borrow from social democrats in Scandinavia and North America to extend opportunity to the very poorest

And I am glad that focus has reflected how our party is now the principal force for progressive change in social and environmental policy, with radical policies on flexible working, support for mothers in the early years, green energy generation and decentralised planning.

But critically, I believe there is one thing that hasn't received anything like the attention it deserves - the way in which the Labour Party has changed.

The Labour Party that will go into this election in 2010 bears only the most superficial resemblance to the Labour Party that swept to power in 1997.

The issues it speaks about, the candidates it fields, the backing it receives - in almost every area, Labour has changed.

To understand the scale of that change, we need to spool back a couple of decades.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour leadership gradually came to realise that the changes of the Thatcher revolution were irreversible, because the British people did not want to reverse them.

We did not want to go back to nationalised monopolies, class warfare, industrial strife and an economy defined by high inflation, higher interest rates and higher debt.

An increasingly classless Britain wanted a lifestyle which transcended class division - based on aspiration, freedom, opportunity - all found in the new market economy.

Tony Blair understood this - and it is why he went to such great lengths, and fought some considerable battles, to change his party.

In every possible area, he wanted to demonstrate that Labour really was 'New'.

So he changed the issues they spoke about.

Out went the stale language of socialism and the old 'us-versus-them' mentality.

In came the lexicon of aspiration, the 'age of achievement' and the ambition of national unity.

Class warfare was officially laid to rest.

Fiscal responsibility, low taxes, economic efficiency - these would be the guide stars of a New Labour administration.

He also changed the people who represented Labour.

Labour could not effectively sell the message of change if its messengers were throwbacks to the old militant tendencies of the 1970s and 1980s - Eric Heffer, Joan Lestor, Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn.

New envoys were required.

People from aspirational backgrounds, people who had worked in business or the professions, people who the British public could identify with and who, by virtue of their backgrounds, were the embodiment of the aspiration New Labour was supposed to stand for.

Parliamentary candidates such as Ross Cranston, who was a successful lawyer of distinction, were selected to fight winnable seats. 

People like Charlie Falconer, a public school educated barrister of admirably open-minded temperament, (The Daily Telegraph, 12 May 2007) were at the heart of Government.

David Simon, the enterprising Chairman of BP and David Sainsbury, a visionary supporter of scientific innovation, who ran one of our biggest supermarkets and had been a major funder of the SDP, were both ennobled, and made ministers. 

Crucially, Tony Blair also changed how the party was organised and funded.

He recognised that a party that was seen to be in the grip of trade union power was a party too heavily associated with the failures of the past and doomed to endure further electoral defeat.

So modernisation meant breaking this stranglehold and reforming Labour's links with the unions.

It was of course John Smith who first eroded the union block vote and brought in a new 'one-member-one-vote' system to elect party leaders. 

But it was Tony Blair who abandoned Clause Four prevented union placemen being allocated seats on the National Executive Committee and brought in Michael Levy to lessen Labour's dependence on union money by bringing in new donors from business backgrounds. 

Tony Blair was determined that if Labour was to be seen to be reliant on anyone, it would be on successful business figures like Alex Bernstein and Robert Gavron rather than the unions and their subscriptions.

The Labour Party that was presented to the British public in 1997 was very different to the old Labour Party - and it was on this prospectus of change that they won the election.


So what about the Labour Party today?

To what extent does it remain true to the ideas, principles and character that were bestowed upon it by Tony Blair - and that delivered it three election victories?

To what extent is it still recognisably New Labour, in the best sense of that term?

What is striking about today's Labour Party is that it hasn't evolved along the path set by Tony Blair, absorbing its more progressive characteristics and developing them further.

Instead, under the guise of 'moving on' from Blair, the Labour Party has in fact regressed.

Under Gordon Brown, Labour has retreated into its traditional comfort zones, ditching the most modernising aspects of the Blair years and going back to many of the failed dogmas the 1970s and 1980s.

The spirit of Seventies socialist nostalgia has re-captured the Labour Party, and it can be found in all those key areas that Blair first recognised had to change.

First, the issues Labour speak about.

Class warfare has not only been resurrected; it has been elevated to holy principle, used in every possible circumstance including, most famously, in vicious, aggressive and direct attacks from a Prime Minister who purports to govern in the national interest.

You can't help but listen to Labour Ministers speak today and get the impression they feel like men and women set free to campaign in a way they feared had gone out of fashion - but are delighted to find is now all the rage. 

Toff-bashing, the politics of envy, an all out assault on aspiration and a war on anyone getting above themselves.

We can now see that the Labour campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was not an aberration: it was a prototype.

Vintage Labour is back. Deep Red is the New Black.

In place of Tony Blair's self-consciously unifying rhetoric, the politics of the dividing line is everywhere deployed. Tony Blair wanted the Labour Party to be the political arm not of the trade union movement but of the British people as a whole. But now Labour has become once more the party of division - them and us, partisans and enemies, strikers and bosses.    

From such a divisive agenda, so policies naturally flow.

Increasing the top-rate of tax. Cutting pension relief. Raising national insurance contributions on middle income earners. Imposing higher costs on businesses. Freezing the inheritance tax threshold.

So Labour is today as Labour was just a few short decades ago: a movement against aspiration, against enterprise, against anyone who dares to make a better life for themselves or pass something on to their children.

Second, let us look at the people who represent Labour now and will do so in the future.

The past few months have seen what can only be described as an exodus of those people cut from the Blair modernising cloth.

James Purnell - the man who finally got the wheels of welfare reform in motion; Stephen Byers - standard bearer for schools reform and the man who was brave enough to openly question Labour's link with the unions; Alan Milburn - the most reform-minded Health Secretary of the past thirteen years.  Ruth Kelly - a politician of rare courage and integrity and a model of common sense in the field of education.

All have chosen to relinquish their seats to pursue careers outside frontline Labour politics.

In their place, a new cadre of politicians have been installed, parachuted into fighting parliamentary seats on the strength of their links with the big unions, those who increasingly wield muscle within Labour.

Two recent selections are particularly noteworthy.

Jack Dromey, Unite's Deputy General Secretary and husband of Harriet Harman, has been selected in the safe seat of Birmingham Erdington.

And John Cryer, one of Unite's political officers, has been selected in the safe seat of Leyton and Wanstead

But this is just the tip of iceberg of a new militant tendency in the next generation of Labour MPs.

Ten prospective parliamentary candidates work for trade unions, including the President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Ian Lavery, an open admirer of Scargillism in Wansbeck and Unison's regional officer, Lilian Greenwood in Nottingham South.

And all told, 59 Labour PPCs are members of Unite, 27 are members of the GMB and 19 of Unison. 

But the stranglehold the big unions have over Labour is not just in the grip they have on the selection process for prospective MPs - it's in the money that oils the whole machine.

And here lies the third area in which Labour have rowed back on the Blair changes of the 1990s - on the structure and financing of their party.

It is true that Labour never really managed to widen the base of donor support beyond a few committed individuals such as Nigel Doughty, Ronald Cohen and Lord Sainsbury.

But it is a massively underappreciated fact that Labour has once again become a wholly owned subsidiary of the big trade unions.

In the summer of 2008, only a written guarantee from Unite, stating they would continue to fund Labour in the years to come, kept the bailiffs from party headquarters. 

And last year, the trade unions furnished Labour with some £10 million.

To put this in perspective, that's sixty percent of what Labour received in total.

And over one-third of this figure, £3.6 million, came from a single union - Unite.

Indeed, since its inception in 2007, Unite have donated some £11 million to the Labour Party. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the Labour Party today are bankrolled by the big unions - indebted to their goodwill and dependent on their largesse for survival.

I think any objective look at this evidence - the reigniting of class war; the parachuting of big union placemen into safe Labour seats; their reliance on big union cash - can only lead us to one conclusion: New Labour has been overthrown. Old Labour now reigns.


And there is, I believe, no better demonstration of this usurpation than the return of Charlie Whelan to the heart of Labour operations.

His indiscretions are well-documented, but for those whose memories do not serve them, let me give a brief potted history of Mr. Whelan.

Like many socialists, he began life as a boarding school-educated middle class lad, in his case from Surrey, before reinventing himself as a trade union official and becoming Gordon Brown's official spokesman and unofficial henchman in 1992.

With Gordon Brown installed as Chancellor, he started to aggressively promote his boss's interests while poisonously undermining his enemies - including Tony Blair but also others like Harriet Harman, Frank Field, Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam.

Famed for his obscenity-laden briefings delivered in Westminster pubs, Tony Blair expelled Whelan from his position at Gordon Brown's side in 1999 after he destabilised the whole Government by bringing down Peter Mandelson.

For a period, Mr Whelan retreated to Scotland and appeared to have mended his ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly this period of internal exile co-incided with Labour's period of greatest reforming momentum.

But then, just as Gordon Brown staked his claim to the Labour party leadership, Mr Whelan re-surfaced again in 2007, this time as political director of Unite.

From this fairly innocuous sounding position, he managed to get himself copied into Damian McBride's smear emails, be accused of bullying three members of his staff and brief against Alistair Darling at a press launch.

I would never go as far as calling Charlie Whelan an 'aggressive hooligan', 'serial killer' or 'killing machine', - but then, civil servants and senior Labour figures have already said that.

I would not suggest he was a force from hell - but then, Alistair Darling has described him as that. 

And I wouldn't ever imply that he was 'economical with the truth' - but then, he himself had admitted that.

Now, you would have thought Prime Ministers with a moral compass, who "never engage in divisive and partisan politics", who stand on the steps of Downing Street promising to "reach out beyond narrow party interest" would give figures like Charlie Whelan a particularly wide berth.

Unfortunately not, because today, Mr. Whelan is not just political director at Unite, he is working in Downing Street, masterminding Labour's election campaign.

Charlie Whelan has thrown the full financial and organisational weight of Unite behind the Labour Party's attempts to get re-elected, co-ordinating a £5 million marginal seats campaign targeting 100,000 potential Labour voters.

Charlie Whelan has set up a phone bank, held campaigning events for Labour MPs, launched a website and provided over 200 campaign officials in key seats. 

But his influence stretches far beyond campaign strategy to devising official government policy.

Charlie Whelan's distinctive fingerprints can be detected all over Labour's recent lurch to the left in key policy areas.

Take for instance, the Agency Workers Directive.

This particular piece of legislation gives full employment rights for temporary agency workers.

For years, Tony Blair resisted its implementation, rightly fearing the extra burden this would place on businesses already struggling to cope with extra regulation.

And that was in the good economic times.

It is therefore astonishing, is it not, that in the middle of a recession, Gordon Brown pushed it through despite the fact it could cost the economy 250,000 jobs? 

Astonishing of course, for those who do not know Charlie Whelan is back helping run Downing Street.

And how about the particularly charged issue of public sector reform?

We all know about Gordon Brown's ideological resistance to reform, but there was a time, during one of his 'I have listened and I have learned' phases, that it seemed he would grasp the nettle and inject some enterprise, innovation and life into our biggest state bureaucracies.

But the dead hand of union pressure - and the sour influence of Charlie Whelan - put paid to any momentary zeal or radicalism he may have experienced.

There's been retreat on the part-privatisation of Royal Mail.

Even though Peter Mandelson did say that the status quo at Royal Mail was untenable.

But after a series of threats, including plans by unions to campaign against Labour MPs who supported this Bill, it has been shelved indefinitely. 

There's been a similar climb down on opening up the supply of NHS care.

This was once regarded as vital to increasing choice and raising standards in our health service.

But after Unison threatened to suspend £100,000 of funding from individual Labour MPs and threatened further sanction if Labour continued the path of reform,  Andy Burnham was forced to say that the NHS remained Labour's 'preferred provider'.

And any chance of real school reform has been torpedoed by a Government that has put the brakes on the Academy programme, refused to open up the supply of education to new providers who can give us a new generation of smaller schools with smaller class sizes and higher wages for better teachers.

Indeed, on a number of other substantive issues, it is hard not to detect the influence of the unions and Charlie Whelan in directing Labour policy.

Putting greater emphasis on tax rises over spending cuts. The suggestion Labour will put a windfall tax on energy companies, forcing up prices for consumers.

And Ending the European Working Time Directive opt-out

But what is most concerning at the moment is the role Charlie Whelan is playing in the British Airways strike. 

The union behind the strike is Unite, the man behind Unite is Charlie Whelan, and yet Gordon Brown has failed to take the steps which are within his power to demonstrate that he wants this strike to stop.

He's told us he thinks the strike is deplorable.

But actions speak louder than words.

Has Gordon Brown told Unite he won't accept any more of their money until they call off this action?

Has Gordon told Unite's general secretaries that he won't accept their efforts on his behalf until they've first guaranteed they won't bring down a great British company?

Has Gordon Brown told Charlie Whelan that its wrong to unleash the forces of hell on families who want to get away this Easter and its time to get back round the table?

How can Charlie Whelan simultaneously be the political director of a union which is paralysing British Airways at the same time as he's directing the political activities of Britain's Prime Minister?

How can we trust what Gordon Brown says about this strike when we know he is in hock to Unite and in thrall to Charlie Whelan?

The concerns I am raising today are, I know, widespread within the Labour Party.

Peter Watt, Labour's former general secretary, says simply: "Charlie Whelan is effectively the general secretary of the Labour Party. He runs the Labour Party."

Colin Byrne, formerly chief press officer for the Labour Party, and a close friend of Peter Mandelson, has asked, "what is a strike mongering politically discredited nutter like Charlie Whelan doing at the heart of Labour's election campaign?"

What Peter and Colin worry about publicly many others deplore privately. The party's modernisers are in retreat and the Whelanist tendency is in the ascendant.

Is it any wonder that one union insider remarked: "We hold all the aces, Brown needs our money to fight what will be a massively expensive campaign. But whoever gets into No. 10 there will only be one real winner - the trade union movement".


This proud declaration from the big unions that they are the masters now goes to the heart of a crucial choice at this election.

It is not just that it's never a good thing when hugely powerful interest groups have the keys to Downing Street.

It's not just that concerns about money and allegiance are undermining the primacy of the national interest in policy-making.

It's not just that the tactics employed by the unions and their militant defenders are diminishing the great offices of state in this country.

It is that in retreating to the comfort zone of their past, Labour are turning their back on this country's future.

Britain is on the cusp of a new period in its history, astutely described by David Cameron as the post-bureaucratic age.

This new era is heralded by a great shift in power and information - a dispersal from concentrated pockets in the most elite corners of society and the highest echelons of commerce, to millions of individuals across the country.

On the back of great technological change and a modern zeal for flexibility and choice, people can now exercise unprecedented control over what they watch, the music they listen to, what they buy, how they book holidays.

This new freedom is creating an appetite for choice and control in more aspects of our lives - from our healthcare to the schooling of our children.

The government that understands this shift - indeed that welcomes it and welcomes the urgent appetite for people power - will be the government that leads Britain into a brighter future.

But not only is this Labour Government failing to embrace the post-bureaucratic age, they are ushering in the second Mesozoic era, with a succession of dinosaurs trooping through Downing Street.

There can be few more powerful forces of conservatism opposed to the flexibility, freedom and choice of the post-bureaucratic age than the Whelanist Tendency now in control of the Labour party.

Labour's re-unionisation has put them in bed with the past at a time when it is crucial that this country wakes up to the future.

The last thing we need a political system where genuine participation in democracy is out-muscled by union power.

This election will decide the future of this country and Labour represents a move backwards, not forwards.

If we are to build a more open, adaptable, flexible, socially mobile and upwardly aspirational society we need to change.

If we are to ensure that investors want to come to Britain, companies want to stay in Britain, entrepreneurs create more jobs in Britain and manufacturers can continue to boast their products are made in Britain then we can't afford another five years of Vintage Labour.

If we are to reform our schools, raise standards for the poorest, modernise our NHS, get better value for taxpayers money, secure a more effective welfare state and guarantee a stronger safety net then we have to choose a different path.

In the end all elections are a choice between the arguments of tomorrow and an attachment to yesterday - in this election it is Labour who are looking back in anger and the Conservatives who believe in a future built on change, optimism and hope.

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